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Dagger Point: Story of Faith and Bravery

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Mareshah Haynes
  • 16th SOW Public Affairs
(Dagger Point is a multi-part series focusing on Air Commando history.) 

Lt. Col. John Alvarez, 6th Special Operations Squadron Commander, is no stranger to adversity. In 1996, the then Navy helicopter pilot participated in a Military exchange program with the 20th SOS, deployed to Ecuador near the border of Columbia. On one particular mission, Lt. Col Alvarez, a Navy SEAL, and an Ecuadorian pilot experienced a horrific crashed that killed the Ecuadorian pilot on impact and severed the future commander's leg. Though seriously hurt, Lt. Col. Alvarez remained strong. Here's his story of faith and bravery.

Commando: What happened on your mission in Ecuador?

Alvarez: I was deployed on a joint special operations team counter-narcotics mission in Sept. 1996. That morning we briefed, and I was an observer on the Gazelle gunship, a French-made helicopter. The bottom line is when we went out to the range; the pilot was flying too close to the water. Somehow we impacted the water. I was ejected through the helicopter windshield. I was in a lot of pain. I could swim pretty well, but I didn't know why I couldn't get to the surface. I severed my left leg right below my calf, and on my right knee there was an open dislocation. The femur was fractured, so my leg was bent at a 90 degree angle out to the right. I had some broken ribs on the left side and a partially collapsed lung because of the impact, and a pretty good groin injury too.

Commando: Did it seem like it wasn't happening to you?

Alvarez: It was actually like two people in my head. One that was about to start screaming and yelling and panicking and the other side was the training. The training is what kept me from panicking. There was disbelief still. "I can't believe this is happening to me. There's no way this can be happening to me."
At that point I was still in a state of shock. Things started to get quiet. I didn't realize how far away the current was taking me. I started to prepare myself for rescue.

At one point I thought "Shoot, I'm gonna die." That's when the guilt and everything else started to set in about my kids and my wife, and a lot of praying. I thought I was going to have to give up my legs to come home. I thought I would have to come back paralyzed or without legs-again, a lot of praying. I looked down the river, and I saw a canoe. I thought I was hallucinating because things were getting kind of fuzzy and the pain was really excruciating. There were two fishermen, two native Indians. They pulled me into the canoe and put a bucket under my legs. The other one was trying to pinch my leg off to stop the bleeding.

I wasn't sure if they were good guys or bad guys, but at that point it didn't matter. When we got to the jungle base they had to cut my flight suit away.

They were trying to get me out of the canoe and stabilize my legs.
In the meantime, in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, we had a C-130 team up there that was being led by Maj. Brian Downs, at the time Capt. Downs. The embassy called, telling them they needed to evacuate me. He (Captain Downs) had to land in a dirt strip that was not approved for C-130s to land there. The SEAL team and combat controllers were chopping down trees to make it wide enough for a C-130 to land. Brian was flying that airplane and got me out and saved my life.

Brian died last year in Iraq. That was a tough loss since he helped save my life 10 years ago. My family and I will always be indebted to Brian and the crew that pulled us out.

While all of that was going on, there was a critical care evacuation team that came out of San Antonio and came down to Ecuador. Brian's airplane flew me back to Quito, and there I went to a private hospital.
That's where they finished the amputation of my leg. My right leg they were able to save. I had a couple of surgeries there, a full blood transfusion, and all kinds of tests and stuff. We crashed on a Thursday afternoon about noon and I was evacuated back to the states by Saturday. There was a flag on the plane because they weren't sure if I was going to survive the flight home.

Commando: How did you come into the Air Force?

Alvarez: While I was still at the hospital, the Navy contacted the Air Force about assigning me back to the Navy. The leadership, from the squadron all the way up through Air Force Special Operations Command, basically said 'We broke him, we're not returning him until we fix him.' I had to go through survival training and water survival again to show that I could run around and swim and get out of a sunken helo dunker under water. I went out on the range; I went on a ship to show that I get could get up and down the stairs. The rest was just a lot of sweat and hard work in the gym to get me strong enough to use my leg.

At the end there was a big board and all the senior Navy flight surgeons of each command voted on whether I could fly again. They approved my flight waiver. Then I had to go back to the Air Force since I was still assigned to it for them to let me fly. It took 361 days. A year later at a prayer breakfast, the wing commander, then Col. Comer, offered me an inter-service transfer. He said 'How would you like to stay in AFSOC?'

We thought about it and it was a really tough decision. A lot of people in the past thought the Navy didn't take care of me and that was one of the reasons. It has nothing to do with that. The Navy took great care of me. This was an opportunity to stay in special operations; for me personally that was the decision.

Commando: How do you think your experience helps you command this squadron since you have been there, done that?

Alvarez: I make my teams plan for contingencies to the utmost degree. I will not accept "Well, we'll work it out" or "We'll figure it out when we get there." Throughout out the Global War on Terrorism, there have been a lot of guys injured in our command. Whatever motivates them to come back to flying or not is a very personal decision.
What I've noticed is that I've a lot more respect for a guy's decision as far as what he wants to do as far as flying. One of the reasons I stayed in the service was really for pay back. I hoped that one day I'd be in the position to do the right thing for my folks, to pay back those people who helped me.